Food in Fantasy: Revealing Characters & Cultures

As the old saying goes, you are what you eat. Who, then, is a hobbit? Or a Hogwarts wizard? Or a Redwall mouse? Food in fantasy stories often combines both familiar and fantastic ingredients, and mixes them in varying measures. Food can help readers more fully experience a fantasy world, and reveal insights into the story’s characters and cultures. By incorporating foods into their stories, writers can give readers a tiny taste, or a full-course meal, of the fantastic.

Evoke the Familiar

“It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” By the end of the first paragraph of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original fantasy work, we already have some expectations about the food hobbits might eat, and even sense a sort of kinship with Winnie-the-Pooh. As Bilbo’s unexpected dwarf visitors arrive right at tea time, the hobbit produces home baked seed-cakes, raspberry jam, apple tart, mince pies, cheese, pork pie, salad, eggs, cold chicken, and pickles from his larder. By evoking familiar British foods, Tolkien not only communicates what hobbits are like, but sets up a stark contrast between their gloriously simple (and frequent) meals with the adventure and hardship that is to come. We can already see that this is a fantasy story rooted in reality, in which nothing will come easily.

Create Fantastic Twists

Of course, fantasies cannot always dwell in the land of the familiar. One of the books on Mrs. Weasley’s kitchen shelf is One Minute Feasts—It’s Magic! (what mother of seven wouldn’t love that?)i Although she serves Harry Potter ordinary foods like sausages, fried eggs, and bread and butterand appears to cook them the old fashioned way, she only needs to wave her wand at the kitchen sink to get it to do the dishes. In a later bookii, she uses a wave of her wand to peel potatoes, send knives flying across the kitchen to chop them, and produce a creamy sauce.

 
The magic provides tools far more convenient than microwaves and dishwashers, but her cooking still requires experience and skill. (After all, “homemade strawberry ice cream” can’t truly come just from a wand any more than from a carton.) By striking a balance between fantasy and reality, J.K. Rowling not only gives just enough fantastic twist to already appealing foods and candies, she invites us to fantasize about what mundane day to day life could be like if we only had a little magic—a theme that certainly extends to the rest of the books.

A more sinister form of fantasy food production occurs when Edmund receives Turkish delight from the White Witch in Narnia. With a single drop of liquid from a coppery bottle, she makes a box appear in the snow, packed with candy that must have seemed a special delicacy during World War II, when sugar was one of the first foods to be rationed. As the Witch knew, “this was enchanted Turkish Delight, and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even… go on eating it till they killed themselves.”iii

 

In contrast, the food the children receive at Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s houseiv requires the hard work of catching fish and boiling potatoes, but is thoroughly satisfying, producing “a long sigh of contentment.” (The only fantastic thing about this food is that a beaver has baked a marmalade tart in her oven.) As a noted theologian, C.S. Lewis used food as a picture of choosing what is difficult but right over what is empty and unfulfilling even in his fantasy works for children.v

 

Indulge in Wishful Thinking

In case the idea of whipping up a meal with the wave of a wand or a drop of magic cordial isn’t enough, fantasy writers also use food to indulge in wishful thinking. When Willy Wonka displays his three-course dinner gum—a complete meal of tomato soup, roast beef, and blueberry pie in a stick of chewy candy—it’s understandable that people can’t wait to get their hands on it. (Even if they’re not gum addicts like Violet Beauregarde.) While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an extremely whimsical fantasy work, the idea of a very small, portable, imperishable food can also be a very practical one (lembas bread, anyone?) and certainly one that sailors, soldiers, and probably even soccer moms have desired in real life.vi

 

But fantasy writers must follow some rules, even while giving free reign to their creativity. J.K. Rowling, when asked why wizards need money and food, once stated in an interviewvii that “Something that you conjure out of thin air will not last. This is a rule I set down for myself early on.” Likewise, the main character of Bedknobs and Broomsticks explains, “Have you ever heard of a rich witch?”viii Fantasy works best when not every problem can be instantly solved with the wave of a wand or twitch of a nose, and food provides a great opportunity to both indulge in and restrict the use of magic.

 

Reveal Culture

Because food is such a fundamental part of our daily lives, it can play a sustaining role in fantasy world building. Food reveals how central eating is to the characters’ lives. Food speaks to the ingredients available in the environment around them. Food shows who is barely surviving, or thriving. Food discloses how cultures treat guests… and enemies. From the way they acquire and prepare edible materials to etiquette with which they dine, characters show they are what they eat every time food comes up in a story.

 

As Cesar Chavez once said, “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” By allowing readers to share food with their fantasy characters, fantasy writers can do the same.


iHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling,chapter 3

iiHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling,chapter 5

iiiThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe, by C.S. Lewis, chapter 4

ivibid, chapter 6

v Isaiah 55:2: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.”

vi To make your own real-life chewing gum flavored like this (that’s not a three course meal, unfortunately), visit: http://foodinliterature.com/food-in-literature/2013/01/charlie-and-the-chocolate-factory-willy-wonka-series-three-course-meal.html

viii The Magic Bed-knob, by Mary Norton, chapter 7